A surprising number of clients come into my office having a basic disagreement with a spouse about one simple question: “Is it more difficult to take care of children at home, or to leave your children and go to a paying job?” I see this in couples I work with, and the same difficulty is often mentioned by parents who see me individually. Whether the parent is at home full-time, working part-time, or on family leave, the same question often arises.
Those with a paying job will say to their partners, “I need to get more sleep than you, because I have to go to work in the morning.”
At-home parents often say to me, “My partner needs a break after getting home from work.” And just as often, the working parent is given time to exercise, have a drink with friends, or play golf, while the at-home parent continues caring for the kids.
Well, they work hard for those breaks, don’t they?
I think it’s time to bust the myth on this one. As any parent who has spent time working for pay as well as time caring for children at home will tell you, raising children may at times be joyful, but it is also more exhausting, emotionally draining, stressful, and occasionally mind-numbingly boring than almost any job out there.
Sure, there are parents who love being home with their kids, just as there are men and women who love their jobs of all kinds. But what job, other than raising kids, includes responsibility for life and death (ever load a toddler who’s having a tantrum into a minivan in a busy mall parking lot?), has totally and completely unreasonable bosses (the kids) who don’t pay you and rarely give any positive feedback (especially when you’re doing your job), does not allow a lunch break, a coffee break, or even guaranteed bathroom break, and runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unless you can find someone to “give you a break?”
What other job puts you in daily jeopardy of being bitten, kicked, or punched, and doesn’t allow you to hit back? And the worst part is, after a day of keeping kids entertained, fed, nurtured, cleaned, and clothed, our partners come home and ask us what we did all day, because the house is a mess!
I have played both roles in my family. I have stayed at home full-time or part-time as the primary caregiver, and I have worked full-time while my partner stayed at home. And I will agree that it is all too easy to question what your partner does all day when you come home.
It’s even easy for the at-home parent to question themselves about what they did all day. But don’t do it! There is nothing more demoralizing than putting your own needs aside for the sake of your kids most of the day, every day, and then hearing our partner (the one person who might validate our work) question our productivity.
The basic problem is that when two parents are raising and supporting a household with young children, there is more work to be done than there is time and energy to do it. And getting into a competition about who does more can only make things worse. Both moms and dads need time with the kids and time away from the kids. Both need time to attend to their own needs. And no one has the monopoly on stress when a couple is raising children. All couples have to make sure that each partner gets his or her needs for self-care met to the extent possible in order to maintain a sustainably happy, healthy family.
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